With her youthful appearance and light skin, African American high school counselor Patricia knows how it feels to be an outsider in her own world. Her racial identity has always been questioned because she also appears white, making it difficult for Patricia to be accepted for who she is rather than for what she looks like. So when a biracial fifteen-year-old boy becomes the target of neighborhood bullies, she’s determined to help him.
One of New York’s most successful men, Morgan Baxter feels totally at home in a corporate boardroom. But being a single father to a troubled teenager is a far more daunting challenge. Patricia Gilbert seems to understand his son—and him. As Morgan and Patricia start seeing each other, he has no idea where the three of them are headed.
With insight and sensitivity, Sandra Kitt gives us a passionate and thought-provoking novel about family, race, identity, and romantic love.
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By Sandra Kitt
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Sandra Kitt
All rights reserved.
"I never want to be fifteen again," Patricia murmured as her eyes scanned the odd but very specific grouping of students who were enjoying an hour's worth of freedom. It was lunchtime at Duncan High School, and for the first time in more than a week, it wasn't raining. Everyone wanted to enjoy the last gasp of fall weather before winter set in.
"Personally, I'd rather have a paper cut," came back a drawling caustic reply. It made Patricia laugh. "High school was strange. I used to get into some weird stuff."
Patricia's gaze rested on her lunchtime companion. A smile formed slowly on her face, the color of coffee with too much milk in it, with her image of Jerome Daly at fifteen.
"You? I don't believe you were ever fifteen," she scoffed, teasing him. "Did you ever smoke, Jerome?"
"Of course not. It's a nasty habit that will kill you."
"I thought so. You're so logical. You don't strike me as the kind of person to do something unhealthy or stupid, even when you were their age." She nodded in the general direction of the high school's freshmen and sophomore classes.
Jerome adjusted his glasses and grinned. "I had my moments," he muttered. "But I never had the kind of baggage the kids here have to deal with. I remember when girls had to wear skirts and dresses to school and cared about how they looked."
Patricia smiled. "They care. I don't think girls wear dresses at all anymore, but they do care how they look. We just don't like it."
"I remember when the biggest trash you could talk about someone was calling them stupid ..."
"Uh-huh." Patricia shook her head. "Talking about someone's mother."
"Now that was nasty. How about getting on them 'cause they were a nerd."
Patricia glanced at him. "No. If you were an immigrant, black, or poor."
He nodded. "You're right. I forgot about that. It hasn't changed, has it?"
"Yo, Ms. G. You're looking fresh."
Patricia glanced around sharply at the giant male approaching. His face was covered with a growth of uneven blond facial hair. His hair was Marine length except for a straggling rat's tail. The jock had two silver loop earrings in each lobe, with a Star of David dangling from one of them.
"Are you looking for me again?" she said, grinning.
"I ain't in no trouble. I passed first quarter. Ask Mr. Daly."
"Barely ..." Jerome reluctantly confirmed with a short nod of his head.
"Good. I'm glad to hear you're trying harder, Peter. I'm hoping not to see you in my office at all this semester. Stay out of trouble."
The boy dared to wink at her. "I might come by to see you anyway," he said audaciously, taking the next two steps in one leap as he headed into the building behind them.
Patricia shook her head and laughed.
"What are you so pleased about?"
"Peter Connors just made a pass at me."
"Well, he'll never be a Supreme Court judge, but he's not blind," Jerome said.
"I know he's lazy and precocious and not very motivated, but at least he comes more often than not to class. Pete's good at sports," Patricia offered. "He still has time to get serious and find himself. We still have time to work with him."
"He's also late more mornings than not, probably won't survive biology—"
"Is biology still required?" Patricia interrupted.
"... and he started a food fight in the cafeteria last week. And you want me to take him seriously? And where are his parents? How come they're not motivating him?" he asked reasonably.
"Well, what do you suggest? More phone calls? More meetings? In the meantime we have to be there for them."
Jerome shook his head and grunted. "The thing is, nobody here trusts me to do things my way. The administration is so constipated, with its rules and regulations, I wonder who it is they really care about. The students or job security. Why can't we just ... do things instead of theorizing about them?"
"I think you would have made a great revolutionary," Patricia teased him.
Jerome looked quickly at her, his smile ironic. "And you make a great cheerleader."
Patricia squirmed uneasily under the sly compliment. She put the remains of her lunch in her oversize tote and hugged it to her chest. "What's that supposed to mean?"
He shrugged, sensing her caution. "Take it easy. You know I think you're pretty special, but I haven't forgotten where we stand. It just means you're the perfect role model. You're in the groove. You connect. You know the pass words and the code to reading the kids. Let's face it. I'm just pond scum to most of them."
"Don't exaggerate," Patricia ordered. "I don't have any special dispensation just because I'm black, Jerome. That doesn't always cut it with the students. I'm still an adult who tries to tell them what to do. I know you think they razz you because you're white, but maybe it's because sometimes you try too hard. Try not to act like them," she advised.
"I couldn't. They're all weird. And I'd look pretty damned silly with my hair in dread locks." Patricia laughed lightly.
The hollow clanging of the interior bell erupted in the air, ending the lunch hour. There was a collective groan, lots of foul complaints, but the students broke from their groups and made desultory progress toward the school building.
"Do you have anything this afternoon?" Jerome asked as he and Patricia found themselves engulfed in the oncoming wave of students.
"I have to go see the father of Kent Baxter. Why?"
"I need you to help me out. Can you see a transfer student for orientation?"
"I guess. Who is it?"
"Girl from Spain. Gabriella Villar, a freshman."
The five-minute warning bell ran.
"The information is in a folder on my desk somewhere ..." Jerome said, heading toward the street and digging for car keys in his pocket.
"This appointment of yours better be important, Jerome. I hate it when we're not available for the kids."
"This is about the kids. I'll explain later ..."
Patricia sighed, and was about to trail behind the last of the students into the school when she became distracted by sounds she couldn't immediately identify. There was loud music from someone's boom box, and students shouting. But something else was going on as well. She could sense tension and wondered what was wrong. Patricia slowed her steps and looked in the direction of the noise. She hurried toward the dozen or so students, milling about near the corner.
"Why are you all still out here? The bell rang already."
The students grew quiet but no one answered. Some of them began to walk away. The volume on the boom box was lowered. In the group Patricia spotted Kent Baxter. He was pulling on his jacket and picking up his knapsack. She glanced around, but couldn't really tell what might have been happening. Kamil was not among the students leaving the scene. Patricia turned back to Kent. He was walking away.
"Wait a minute," Patricia called out. He reluctantly stopped and turned to face her. Patricia walked up to him, trying to see if there were any signs of what might have been going on. "Were you fighting again?"
He shrugged, a convincingly puzzled expression spreading over his face. "I wasn't doing anything."
"What were you doing, then?"
He grew fidgety. "We were talking about ... about one of the classes," he said.
Patricia watched Kent closely, but had to admit he seemed unfazed by her questioning of him. Still, her gaze narrowed speculatively. "I want to see you this afternoon in my office," she suddenly announced.
He looked aggrieved. "I didn't do anything."
"I didn't say you had," Patricia reminded him quietly. "But I'd still like to see you. Two o'clock. You can get a pass from the office on your way to class."
Kent made an impatient gesture, but turned and went into the building. Patricia followed behind, finally losing sight of him in the crowd.
Patricia took in the bobbing heads and faces of the student body of Duncan. She felt both hope and trepidation in knowing that these were the faces, and colors, of the future. When she'd started at the high school the students had been mostly white from middle to upper middle class families. Kids of working professionals. But in keeping with the changes in the city and community ethnic makeup, Duncan now more or less realistically reflected the population. Academically it was still considered a strong school. But it now also offered opportunities to those students, like Kamil Johnson and Eric Patton, who showed promise but needed discipline. She'd been hired to encourage that promise.
As she reached the sanctified corner of administrative and faculty offices Patricia found the corridor quiet and all doors tightly shut. Except for the counseling office, which she insisted remain open at all times during school hours. The office didn't allow for much privacy, so she and Jerome never scheduled appointments at the same time.
Patricia retrieved the manila folder from Jerome's desk, baring the name of Gabriella Villar on the tab. She took it to her own desk, removed her coat, and, sitting down, began leafing through the information. It was a straightforward orientation of a new student, and took only a moment or so to read.
The fourteen-year-old was the daughter of an economics scholar from Spain, in the U.S. to work as a consultant with two corporations in the city. The girl had already attended schools in England and Tokyo.
"Is anyone here?"
"Yes, Mrs. Forrest," Patricia said vaguely as she finished reading and closed the folder. She stood up as the middle-aged woman came in escorting a young girl.
"Good morning, Pat," the older woman drawled.
It was a familiarity that bordered on the disrespectful and had always been a minor irritation to Patricia. "Morning, Mrs. Forrest," she nonetheless returned politely.
In the seven years Patricia had worked at Duncan, Mrs. Gertrude Forrest had never addressed her equally as a professional, and had always grudgingly accepted her as part of the school administration. Patricia knew that Mrs. Forrest had been in the first wave of black employees to be hired at Duncan. She had begun as a classroom teacher, but had quickly learned the rules of advancing upward. Through district and political connections she had boosted her position to Dean of Students at Duncan. Patricia was just irritated that her colleague treated the position as a right rather than a privilege, forgetting that her role was to serve the students, not herself.
"When are you going to cut off all that hair?" Mrs. Forrest asked as she adjusted her half-frame glasses.
"I did," Patricia quipped smoothly. "This is what's left."
"You need to do something with it," the woman said quietly.
Patricia ignored the comment. Her wavy red hair had been her nemesis, even as a child, and a ready target for ridicule and speculation. Mrs. Forrest was an attractive woman, in a matronly sort of way, and had always reminded Patricia of those proper church ladies she met at services, when she went with her grandmother. Patricia suspected that Gertrude Forrest's attitude toward her wasn't much different from a lot of other black people she'd encountered over the years who somehow believed she'd gotten to where she was through her light skin and good hair.
Mrs. Forrest had even once been presumptuous enough to say to her, "You can get anything you want, Patricia. Just look at you ..."
Patricia transferred her attention to the young girl standing silently behind Mrs. Forrest. She didn't seem to be paying any attention to the adults' exchange. "Why don't we just sit out here?" she said, pulling several chairs together. "It's less crowded than my office."
"This is Gabriella Villar," Mrs. Forrest introduced. "I don't think she speaks much English. She hasn't said a word all morning."
Duncan was not a bilingual school, and Patricia suspected that she wasn't really needed at all to interpret for the dean. She studied the girl more carefully but didn't ask Gertrude why she'd made no attempt to speak with the young student.
When they were all seated, Mrs. Forrest turned to Patricia and peered over the top of her glasses.
"I really don't like the idea of students starting in the middle of the semester."
"Her file says she's an overseas transfer. That's a little different, don't you think?" Patricia asked easily.
Mrs. Forrest maintained her poise and reorganized the papers she held. "There was a lovely little girl in September from Haiti whose parents tried to get her into Duncan. Mr. Boward wouldn't let her enroll. Said she'd have to go to the school up in Flatbush. He's so obvious, if you know what I mean."
Patricia smiled pleasantly. "I know it's predominantly black, but it's every bit as good as Duncan, isn't it? Isn't that the school you came from?"
Mrs. Forrest pretended not to have heard. "Would you mind acting as translator until I get these forms filled out?"
Patricia looked at the young girl. She was very pretty. She had an exotic aloofness and carriage that clearly stated she wasn't an American teen. Her hair was dark and cut short, unlike the girls at Duncan who still actively cultivated long permed hair, or who wore braids and extensions. Her eyes were a soft hazel color and slightly slanted, giving the girl a feline look to her delicate facial features.
"I have to warn you," Patricia began, "my Spanish is pretty rusty." She held out her hand to the young girl. "Hola. Yo me llamo Patricia Gilbert."
The girl took the proffered hand, showing mild surprise at Patricia's use of the language. "Hola," Gabriella said in a soft voice.
"Bienvenida a la escuela."
Mrs. Forrest nodded in approval. "Good ... this shouldn't take long."
But all through the interview Patricia noticed that the girl was quiet and uninterested in the process. It was only near the end of the hour, when she thanked Gabriella for an opportunity to practice her Spanish, that Patricia won a half smile and a blush from the girl.
Ten minutes after the administrator left Patricia's office with Gabriella, Kent Baxter walked quietly in. Patricia bent her head around the partition of her office and smiled at him. She could see he was indecisive about being there at all. He made a half turn out the door.
"Hi. You made it," Patricia said. "Come on in."
When Kent appeared in the doorway of her small space, he looked around with disinterest. Patricia pretended busyness by stacking books and papers as she studied him. She suddenly realized that he'd cut his hair from when she'd first met him. It was layered very close to his scalp. Peter Connors and some of the other boys cut their hair in imitation of whoever the current reigning rock group was. Patricia had the distinct feeling that Kent Baxter's severe cut had been an act of insurrection. She wondered ... against what?
His clothing was neat and everything fit. No jeans that were too long in the legs or seat, that sat on his hips. No sweater two sizes too large so that hands retracted inside the cuffs. No fancy sneakers with gimmicks that were left untied with the tongue hanging out. Kent Baxter didn't copy his peers. And he was handsome, which was bound to draw attention and create problems for him.
"Sit down," Patricia coaxed. He obeyed, eyeing her suspiciously and boldly for a long moment. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
He quickly averted his gaze. "You don't look like a guidance counselor."
She grinned wryly. "I've been told I look like a lot of things, so I don't think I'm going to ask if that's a compliment or not. I've been reviewing your record since the start of school in September. So far it hasn't been great. You're late for classes, or you cut. You don't participate in discussions, forget homework assignments, and"—she glanced briefly at him—"get into fights ..."
He slid down in the chair, just enough to demonstrate a lack of interest. "My grades are okay. I'm not failing."
Patricia raised her brows. "It's early yet, but you're getting close. You started high school in Colorado an honor student. What happened?"
"I'd still like to know about the cuts and lateness."
Kent's knee began to bounce in nervous tension, as he pressed the ball of his booted right foot rapidly on the floor. "Sometimes I miss the bus."
"You could get up a little earlier," Patricia suggested, but she already suspected that oversleeping wasn't the real problem. "What about the cuts?"
"I got sick one day. I had to go home."
"That doesn't explain the other"—Patricia looked quickly at a page—"eleven cuts. That's a lot in just two months of school."
"I guess," he responded vaguely.
"We can always change your homeroom, give you a different schedule."
"I don't care. It doesn't matter to me."
"Of course it does. It's going to be a very long school year if you don't like your program."
"It's okay," he insisted, somewhat impatiently.
Patricia turned a page in the folder. The next was blank. "Are you happy here?"
Kent looked confused. "What difference does it make? I probably don't even belong here."
"Really? Where do you belong?" she asked, surprised by his answer.
"I don't know. Nowhere."
"Maybe you just miss Colorado."
"New York is okay."
Patricia stared at the boy for a moment, guessing that he wasn't being evasive; he simply had no real answers. "Well, when you make some friends, it'll be easier. Especially if you like sports. Where do you go during lunch? After school?"
"No place. Home."
Excerpted from Significant Others by Sandra Kitt. Copyright © 1996 Sandra Kitt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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